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South Korea: Warning to Twitter Influencers Fails to Discourage Voters

The South Korean capital, Seoul, elected a new mayor on October 26, 2011. The mayoral race was a fierce battle between an elitist female candidate from the ruling party and an outsider from a democratic party who was widely supported by activists and lot of Twitter users.

Despite warnings from the authorities on showing favoritism to one candidate, Twitter users were quick to encourage voters, especially young people, to participate in the poll. As a result, this election recorded unprecedented high voting rates [ko] of 46 percent and Park Won-soon, the democratic candidate who is often despised by richer South Koreans, won the race.

Twitter's part in the election

Vote confirmation photo. Posted by Twitter User @mizry, in May 2011 election.

Vote confirmation photo. Posted by Twitter User @mizry, in May 2011 election.

The mayoral race in Seoul is a significant event in the South Korean political landscape and the candidates are often viewed as possible presidential candidates. It is no wonder then that the campaign is extremely fiercely contested, involving harsh slandering comments and suspicions being cast on candidates’ backgrounds.

Among many elements affecting the campaign, Twitter has once again played a major role in the voting result. The South Korean authorities themselves experienced the power of Twitter earlier this year (see Global Voices’ post ‘South Korea: Surprising Election, as Twitter Draws Youth to Polls‘.

At the start of this week, South Korea's National Election Commission warned influential Twitterers, including actors, comedians, writers, journalists and bloggers who have actively encouraged people to vote, against expressing political favoritism. The Commission also reminded people of the country's strict guidelines on photo shooting; one is allowed to take photos of the voting station, but it is illegal to take photos of the voting sheet, or inside the voting booth.

The National Election Commission's decision to rein in Twitter users has immediately sparked controversy. The Commission has argued [ko] that since most of the powerful users have vocally and openly endorsed Park, encouraging people to vote actually equates to pushing people to vote for Park. Campaign data showed [ko] that the higher the voting rates, the more likely Park was to win the race.

Clampdown on social media influencers

As if mocking the National Election Commission's decision, lots of politically vocal celebrities have continued to encourage people to go to the polls in various creative ways. Kim Yeo-jin, an actress-activist (@yohjini), tweeted a photo of herself making a hand gesture signalling her promise to vote.

Lee Oi-soo (@oisoo), a star novelist and one of the nation's top five most influential Twitter users, tweeted [ko]:

I've noticed numerous tweets saying they will cast votes. Since I have to stay inside the National Election Commission's regulatory boundaries, I may shut up and just broadcast what is happening [in the Twittersphere, instead of tweeting about his own opinion], but one thing for sure: I will not be bullied by them.

Kim Jae-dong (@keumkangkyung), a famous comedian and entertainer, tweeted [ko]:

If the voting rate surpasses 50 percent, I will take off my top on Samgak mountain [as a sign of jubilation].

A journalist with a progressive newspaper and another of the nation's top Twitter users, Huh Jae-hyun (@welovehani), criticized [ko] the Commission's inconsistency on setting restrictions for Twitterers:

선관위. 지난 주민투표 때는 투표인증샷에 대한 제한기준 발표 안하더니 이번에는 갖가지 규제. 투표율 높으면 선관위한테 좋을텐데. 대체 이유가 뭘까.

Those National Election Commission people – they have not announced any guidelines on the vote confirmation photos in the last referendum. But now, they came up with all these restrictions. Technically, it would be good for them if the voting rates go higher? Why do they act in this way?

One prolific Twitter user Doa (@doax) criticized [ko] the Commission's confusing standards in regulating tweets:

선관위. 정말 악질인 듯. 오늘 투표 독려도 안되는 것으로 아는 사람이 많다. 박원순 멘토단 투표독려를 금지한 때문. 여러 분 투표독려는 상관없습니다. 유명인도 안철수씨는 독려하면 안되지만 김연아는 됩니다.

The National Election Commission is pure evil. Many people understood the rules as one is not allowed to send vote-encouraging tweets even today. [Note: the limitations on vote-encouraging tweets take effect about two weeks before the campaign starts and commence once the voting starts] It is because they banned Park's supporters from sending vote-encouraging tweets. Hey, everyone, you can encourage each other to go vote. It is also [weird that they have different rules] for celebrities. It is not okay for Ahn Chul-soo to encourage voters, while Kim Yuna can do it without any limitation. [Note: Ahn is a respected and successful businessman who founded an antivirus software company and is now a professor, whilst Kim is an Olympic figure skating champion]

Myung Seung-Kwon (@DrMyung), a staff physician and senior scientist at the National Cancer Center in Seoul, tweeted [ko] with a sense of humor:

본인이 유명인인지 확인할 수 있는 절호의 찬스! 투표 독려 트윗을 날렸을 때 선관위에서 연락오면 유명인 맞음

It is a perfect chance to verify you are famous or not. Just tweet some comments encouraging people to vote. If the Commission responds back to you [with some warnings] then it means that you are a really famous [influential] person.

Han Hak-soo (@Mbcpdhan), a producer with MBC, South Korea's network television, tweeted [ko] a vote confirmation photo with this provocative comment: “This is my vote confirmation photo! I dont want to disappoint my son who sees me as a famous figure. So National Election Commission, please punish me!”

Posted by Twitter User @Mbcpdhan, taken at one of the voting stations.

Posted by Twitter User @Mbcpdhan, taken at one of the voting stations.

However, there are several Twitter users accusing Park and Park's supporters as being ‘leftist’ with a ‘socialist agenda’ and ‘pro-North Korea’ tendencies.

After Lee Hyo-ri (@frog799), a South Korean female singer and a national sex symbol, tweeted [ko] her vote confirmation photo, one Twitter user, Storyboard (@storyboard7), accused [ko] her of becoming a lefty:

좌파 연예인들 방송은 보지도 듣지도 맙시다. 이효리양도 좌파 선언을 했군요.

We don't ever watch or listen to TV shows starring those lefty entertainers. Miss Lee Hyo-ri has announced and identified herself as one of those lefties.

Lee Hyori (@frog799) responded [ko] “Hmm. What is a  lefty?”, resonating many others’ perplexed responses to this categorization. Chun Dong-hwan (@jdhkyh) tweeted [ko]:

투표하러 가면 좌파인가요? 참나…. 그럼 투표하러 간다는 이효리씨에게 좌파라 하시는 분은 낼 투표 안하실껀가 보네요. 투표하면 좌파? 안하면 우파? 뇌구조 참 웃기는 분이네. 단순해서 좋겠소

Are we lefties because we go to the polls? Unbelievable… Then you, who call Hyo-ri a lefty, you will not be going to vote tomorrow? When someone votes, it means they are lefties and when they don't vote, they are right wing? You have a weird brain structure. Well, it can be convenient since your brain is so simple.

Some people argued more reasonably. Haksoo Bae (@way_Tao) pointed out [ko] that influential Twitter users encouraged people to vote selectively:

이효리, 박중훈, 김제동의 투표권유는 순수하지않다. 그들은 8월 무상급식투표에도 시민에게 투표참여를 독려했는가? 그들은 투표 불참이 한나라당에 타격을 줄때에는 투표방해를 방관하고, 투표참여가 한나라당을 불리하게 한다고 판단할때는 투표를 독려한다.

Lee Hyo-ri, Park Jung-hoon, and Kim Jae-dong's vote encouragement cannot be free of political intentions. They did not encourage residents to vote on a free lunch referendum in August. When the lower voting rates inflict damage to the ruling Grand National Party, they do not encourage people to vote. When higher voting rates work against the ruling party, then they encourage people to vote.

Citizens have tried hard to set time aside to vote in their busy schedules. Professor of Seoul National University, Cho Guk (@patriamea) introduced [ko] several tweets showing how serious people were.

One tweet [ko] by Twitter user @urgood1109 read:

Professor Cho. I need to get to the airport by tomorrow 7:30 am- it is for my work. But before I get there, I will first drop by the voting station 6 am in the morning. I could be the first one to cast vote on that voting location. But no matter what, I will never give up on voting.

Meanwhile Oh Jin-ah (@dodani90) tweeted [ko]:

상암동 주민 한분이 전화로 “깜짝놀랐어요.이제까지 선거하면서 출근시간에 젊은사람들 이렇게까지 줄서서 기다린건 처음이네요” 하시네요.

One resident of Sang-Am Dong called me and said “I was so surprised. I have never seen young people lining up for vote in this busy commuting hour.”

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